Kelly Egan's thoughts, following release
of the Rural Summit "ISSUES PAPER"


From the...


When in doubt, call a meeting

Kelly Egan
The Ottawa Citizen


Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Meetings are indispensable when you don't want to do anything.

 


Kelly Egan

I wish I'd said that. Credit, however, goes to John Kenneth Galbraith, a man so smart he has three names and possibly one-and-a-half brains.

Another personal favourite: When a manager does not know what to do, he calls a meeting. By extension, when a manager hasn't a clue where to even start, he calls a really, really big meeting, and declares it a summit.

 
 
I see many, many meetings in somebody's future and many innocent trees dying in the pursuit of wasted paper.

 
 

The City of Ottawa has released an "issues paper" in advance of its ballyhooed Rural Summit, to be held over two unchosen days this fall, probably in November.

The six-page advance document is a decent summary of the way Ottawa's rural residents feel about being part of a modern, urban city. Generally, they think it sucks. The fix, however, is an unwritten chapter.

To retreat for a moment, on Jan. 1, 2001, Ottawa wildly expanded its territory, swallowing neighbouring cities and five mainly rural townships.

Overnight, Ottawa became a city of farms, about 1,300 in total, more than the number of technology firms. Its land base became 90 per cent rural and the single biggest land use -- 44 per cent -- was now farming.

To be fair, this was a municipal structure foisted on the city by an impatient provincial government. It is not as though the mayor of Ottawa lobbied to be in charge of cows.

On the flip side, farmers and country people never wanted to be part of the city. Like, uh, this is why they live or moved out beyond the neon.

So we had a gunshot wedding, a spiteful honeymoon and now a loveless marriage.

Put another way, the basis of a "community" is a set of common interests that can best be served by a government of your peers. In Ottawa, this we lack. One group is talking manure storage; the other crack pipes. Hello, Elgin Street? We have a problem.

The bottom line, however, is we appear to be stuck with each other. So, now what?

 
 
I rather suspect the city is spending $150,000 in an effort to do the impossible: convince country people that city government is good for them.

 
 

The city appears to have done its homework, at least. It held 16 meetings, from May to early July, at which it got an earful.

The paper groups the concerns into five main areas: access, governance, service, policies and agriculture.

The access troubles are understandable. A group of residents as far-flung as Galetta and Burritts Rapids is being dealt with by a municipal staff largely based in central Ottawa. How could the hapless clerk possibly know what ditch you're calling about?

On that note, the suggestion for a rural ombudsman has potential, but it's unclear whether this is merely a listening post or a white knight with a sharp sword.

Governance is perhaps the most explosive, intractable problem. In the space of five years, rural citizens first lost their own dedicated councils and mayors, then had to swallow the news they were over-represented in their new city ward.

To make matters worse, councillors were now forced to spend most of their time 20 or 30 kilometres away from their ward.

The issue of bylaw harmonization is a thorny one as well. The rurals have complained about imposing city bylaws onto people and places they were never intended to reach. Transit, outdoor fires, roadside stands, policing -- the list goes on and on.

 
 
In the space of five years, rural citizens first lost their own dedicated councils and mayors, then had to swallow the news they were over-represented in their new city ward.

 
 

Here's an obvious problem. Will bylaws and building codes be applied differently in city and country? If so, where does the rural area begin? And how fair is that?

The argument gets circular. If rural residents are subject to a different regulatory regime, why not just give them their own government in the first place?

In terms of agriculture, the best course of action is for the city to keep its nose out of it. So much of what farmers do is governed by other levels of government, producers hardly need another regulator in their faces.

The paper also makes it clear that bureaucratic gridlock has set in. It has already established that the first day of the summit will deal, only broadly, with the rural-urban relationship. A "Day 1 Steering Committee" has already been conceived.

The second day will deal specifically with Ottawa issues. It too has a steering committee.

When the summit is over, a task force will be established to monitor progress.

I see many, many meetings in somebody's future and many innocent trees dying in the pursuit of wasted paper.

At its core, there is a devilish brilliance at play here. Big trouble in Rural Land? Heh, we'll deal with that at the summit. Not solved at the summit? Heh, we'll send it over to the task force.

Want to speak to the task force? Sure, let's call a meeting. Pretty soon, the pinpoint anger is dissipated a mile wide.

I rather suspect the city is spending $150,000 in an effort to do the impossible: convince country people that city government is good for them. Good luck in selling that one. Country may be simpler; country isn't stupid.

Contact Kelly Egan at 726-5896 or by e-mail, kegan@thecitizen.canwest.com

 The Ottawa Citizen 2005


 

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